Don’t forget the parents when designing for young children

The parents are choosing the apps after all.


Dina Zuko

2 years ago | 5 min read

Ihave a 3-year-old daughter and lately, I have started looking for some entertaining and educational apps for her. I downloaded a few apps to try out before handing it over to her but I was surprised by the lack of user experience design in some of these apps.

The navigation was a mess, it was unclear what the story was, unclear what you could do using the app. It was unclear what was for free and what cost extra. Parental settings were missing or lacked the necessary settings. And so on.

Since I have not designed for children I thought I would read some books to better understand UX design for children. I got two books, “Design For Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning” by Debra Levin Gelman, and “Designing for Kids: Creating for Playing, Learning, and Growing” by Krystina Castella. Great books, covering the cognitive development of children and guidelines when designing for different ages, from birth to adult. But both books were more or less missing the parental perspective.

Only once does Gelman mention that parents are users, too. In her book, Gelman writes that parents to young children, ages 2–4 years, hand over tablets or smartphones to kids as a form of distraction for a long car trip or in a restaurant. In those cases, it is really annoying to constantly reach back and close a dialog box or correct an error. She writes:

“When designing apps for kids, make sure there are “set and forget” parent controls for things like volume, upsells, and messages so the parents can set their preferences once and hand over the device without worry.”

In “Designing for Kids: Creating for Playing, Learning, and Growing” Krystina Castella writes that the designer should view the parent and the child as two separate types of users. Two personas, two user stories. Castella:

“A blended experience usually don’t work for either. Design the adult’s experience and the children’s experience separately. For example have the parent start the product and do what they need to do. Then have them hand it over to the kids and let them do their part. Find the places where you need to go back and forth and design the connectors.”

This is great advice. Remember that you have two separate types of users with different needs.

What do the parents look for when choosing an app for their children?

You can find great information about designing for children in the mentioned books and I will not go into further detail in this article. I will focus on what the parent look for when choosing an app for their children. What features do parents need? After all, small children, like my daughter, usually do not choose which apps they will use, the parents choose for them. You need to maximize the likelihood of parents selecting “your” app.

In 2018 Broekman, Piotrowski, Beentjes, and Valkenburg from the University of Amsterdam conducted massive research on how parents choose apps for their children.

They wanted to identify which features parents look for when selecting apps for their young children, ages 3–7. And which features are the most important.

When parents select apps for their young children, they are typically looking to fulfill one or more of their own needs as well as the perceived needs of their child. Therefore, the researchers also investigated how app features might fulfill parents’ needs when they select apps for children.

Broekman and her fellow researchers knew from previous research that parents desired entertaining apps that foster independent play. They desire apps that encourage learning with content that they, as the parent, can control.

They also wanted apps that offer content that is familiar to their child and apps that present tailored content as well as content that is challenging to their child. Lastly, they look for apps that can occupy their children so they have time for other things.

Based on that the researchers conducted 20 in-depth interviews with parents of children ages 3 to 7 to find out which features in children’s apps that parents believe are important. The interviews with parents revealed 23 features in apps for children that they believe are important in app design.

Then, they translated these features into statements designed to assess their importance. These statements formed an online survey which was then conducted with 591 parents of children aged 3 to 7 to identify which features are most important to parents. The three most important features were:

  1. Clear design. Parents wanted a clear design with clear and simple shapes, colors, moving objects, friendly characters, a clear purpose, and interactivity.
  2. Tailorable, controllable, educational content. The parents wanted tailorable content, that enhances knowledge and skills, is educational, and incorporates parental control settings.
  3. Challenges and rewards. The parent also wanted entertaining content, offering new content, rewards, and challenges, with an option to customize.

So, clear design, educational, and parental control settings where parents can tailor the content. You can find more information in their article “App features that fulfill parents’ needs in apps for children” published in the journal Mobile Media & Communication.

Parental control settings

Parental control settings are one of the most important features when parents choose apps for their children. Working as a UX designer and being a potential user I can highlight a few necessary settings.

  • The parental settings should not be accessible to children.
  • Parents should be able to choose the content available for the child. Perhaps combined with age settings.
  • Time settings with a nice bye, bye from the app when the time is up.
  • Sound settings. Able to turn off sound, music, etc.
  • The parents should be able to block in-app purchases.
  • The parents should be able to block links that take you to a website or other apps.

Entering parental settings Bolibompa (text translated from Swedish to English)

But how should the connector between the child-part of the app and the parental settings be designed? One of the apps that my daughter is allowed to use it Bolibompa, an app where she can explore numbers, letters, play memory, feed, and dress up a little dragon.

When I want to enter the settings I simply press on the lock on the upper right corner and then I am asked to enter specific numbers in a specific order. Super easy for me, very difficult for a 3-year-old. Equals good UX.

How about screen time?

The latest recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) are that for children under the age of 2 screen time is not recommended. For children under the age of 5 the total screen time per day should not be more than 1 hour, less is better.

How should we as UX designers relate to these recommendations? No apps for children under the age of 2? My personal opinion is that it is up to the parents to decide if they want to follow these recommendations or not, so we should continue designing for the youngest as well. But we should allow parents to limit the screen time, and we should do this in a smart way so the parents do not have a screaming and crying child when the time is up.

Again, I will use Bolibompa as an example. The app has settings where I set the time she is allowed to play and when the time is up the dragon waves bye, bye, and says that he needs to do something else.

I love this feature because she accepts that the dragon has left, usually without arguing with me about playing a bit longer. Perfect UX for the parents. And I guess I would not let her use an app that does not have a feature like this. Then I would never get the phone back.

Bolibompa saying bye, bye. Screenshot from the app.

Last but not least. Kids usually inherit an older smartphone or tablet. It is usually slow, the battery is bad, and no internet connection. Keep that in mind when designing. The parents rely on the app functioning without wi-fi (in the car for example) and the app being responsive on an older phone or tablet.


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Dina Zuko







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